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From physics to art and back

Scientists studying cultural heritage use a variety of physics techniques to understand how pieces were made, their history and how to best preserve them. Six scientists who use different techniques describe their work — and how working with cultural heritage can lead to physics developments, too.

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Fig. 1: Artworks and cultural heritage that have been studied using physics methods.


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M.L. makes the following acknowledgements: “I’d like to acknowledge Henry D. Smith II at Columbia University for his insights into the use and meaning of colour in Japan, John Delaney at the National Gallery of Art for his help with hyperspectral imaging, John Twilley for teaching me everything I know about art analysis but certainly not everything he knows, the late John Winter at the Freer Gallery of Art for introducing me to the study of Japanese art and the late Richard Ernst for countless discussions on art and science, and for waiting patiently, after I explained Fourier transforms to him, before telling me about his research on Fourier transform NMR, and that he was given a prize in Stockholm for that work”. K.F. would like to express sincere gratitude to the staff of the museums, especially conservators, for their cooperation and for their comments, which have been essential for the interpretation of the data. H.L. gratefully acknowledges collaborations with scientists, conservators and curators in various museums, galleries and other heritage organizations, contributions made by past and present staff and students of the ISAAC lab on OCT for art research in general, and, in particular, C. S. Cheung for developing the 2-μm OCT, University of Southampton colleagues Andrew Clarkson, Masaki Tokurakawa and Jae Daniel for developing broadband lasers at 2 microns and funding from the following: Leverhulme Trust Research Grant (F01 374F); UK Arts and Humanities Research Council and Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (AHRC/EPSRC AH/H032665/1); UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC CDP/National Gallery AH/R00174X/1); UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC CDP/British Museum AH/R001413/1); UK Arts and Humanities Research Council and Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (AHRC/EPSRC/English Heritage CDA08/429); UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC/National Gallery CASE/CAN/04/90/). P.B. is indebted to all the conservators and students who enthusiastically contributed to the development of the field, and acknowledges the European Commission for its financial support of this exotic research field. G.F. would like to thank all co-authors and researchers she had the opportunity to collaborate with in the field of multidisciplinary cultural heritage studies, for the fruitful collaborations and exchanges. V.L. and the Rock Art studies programme at the Centre of Accelerator Science at ANSTO acknowledge the financial support through the Australian National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy and Rock Art Australia Foundation, as well as the help of the radiocarbon laboratory staff. He would also like to thank all co-authors and collaborators in the labs and in the field for the chance to participate in such exciting studies.

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Authors and Affiliations



Marco Leona

Marco Leona is the David H. Koch Scientist in Charge of the Department of Scientific Research at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. He studied chemistry at Università degli Studi di Pavia (Italy), where he obtained a PhD in mineralogy and crystallography in 1995. Dr. Leona’s main research interest is the application of surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy to the study of pigments and dyes.

Kaori Fukunaga

Kaori Fukunaga joined the National Institute of Information and Communications Technology in 1994 and is the Director General of the Applied Electromagnetic Research Center. She has been involved in deterioration analysis and non-destructive testing by using electromagnetic waves. She received her PhD in electrical engineering and BA in arts and design.

Haida Liang

Haida Liang is Distinguished Professor of Physics and head of the Imaging and Sensing for Archaeology, Art history and Conservation (ISAAC) lab at Nottingham Trent University. She obtained a PhD in astronomy and astrophysics from the Australian National University, studying clusters of galaxies using the Australia Telescope Compact Array (a radio interferometric array that is related to another type of interferometer invented by Michelson, the Michelson stellar interferometer).

Piero Baglioni

Piero Baglioni is Professor of Physical Chemistry at the University of Florence and is a MIT affiliate. He is on the editorial/advisory boards of several international journals and a member of several national and international institutions and societies. He is the author of more than 500 publications and 27 patents in the field of colloids and interfaces, and a pioneer in the application of soft-matter physics to the conservation of cultural heritage.

Giulia Festa

Giulia Festa is an experimental physicist whose research focuses on the development of neutron instrumentation and the analysis of materials applied to cultural heritage, collaborating with several international institutions and researchers worldwide. She has been principal investigator of more than 30 neutron experiments. Festa is co-editor of the first monograph about neutron methods applied to archaeology and cultural heritage.

Vladimir Levchenko

Vladimir Levchenko is a physicist with more than 35 years’ experience in cosmogenic radionuclides and nearly 30 years’ involvement with accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS). He joined the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) in 2006 and took a leading role in radiocarbon AMS in the range of applied studies extending from biomedical and ice core research to rock art, including Australian Aboriginal rock art research programmes. Vladimir participated in a series of scientific expeditions to remote areas for sample collection, including Andes Altiplano in Bolivia, Kimberley and Arnhem Land in Australia.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Marco Leona, Kaori Fukunaga, Haida Liang, Piero Baglioni, Giulia Festa or Vladimir Levchenko.

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Leona, M., Fukunaga, K., Liang, H. et al. From physics to art and back. Nat Rev Phys 3, 681–684 (2021).

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